A divided weekend in North Cyprus

Magnificent beaches, eco-tourism initiatives and impassioned locals make for a bracing weekend in north Cyprus

Sarah Baxter | Issue 91 | November 2007

The snake and I were on the same wavelength: it leapt into the bush with the same degree of alarm that I leapt away from it. This was my third snake on a stroll under the Cypriot sun and, despite the glittering Mediterranean, the flutter of butterflies and the fresh-but-pharmaceutical scent of mastic trees, I was starting to feel a little uneasy.

So when I saw the tractor approaching from across the fields – the only hint of human life for two hours – I was rather relieved. At least it was someone to administer the anti-venom. The grunting vehicle pulled over, its driver clearly wondering why a foreign female was roaming alone in the locals-only environs of the Karpaz Peninsula. “Want a lift?” he enquired.

Ancient relics

I weighed up the safety of perching on his tow bar against the slithering bushes and hopped on.

Fahri was returning to Kaleburnu with a sickly sheep (which, I now noticed, was bleating quietly near the gear stick). As he drove me back to the hillside tumble of the village, he pointed out the tombs – some 3,000 years old – chipped high up into the surrounding cliffs. “Want to see?

We parked the tractor, scrambled up a parched slope and negotiated the ladder, now mangled and near-useless, supposed to lead visitors into this impressive historical site.

“I think this one is about 400 years old,” Fahri said as we entered the hand-carved cavern. “During the war in the 70s, people used to hide in here.”

Incredible. But dim and deserted, and I suddenly wondered if I should be here with a random Cypriot farmer. However, one look at his wide grin and I realised this was much safer than taking on the snakes. I’d found what I was looking for.

I was on the hunt for the most traditional and undeveloped corner of North Cyprus – a portion of this portion of an island that isn’t being consumed by villas. Once I’d hit the Karpaz Peninsula, the ‘country’s’ finger up to the world that refuses to recognise it, I’d felt happier. Beaches – really good-looking ones – were deserted, bee-eaters outnumbered people and smiling Cypriots adopted you like a new best friend.

Travelling in time

North Cyprus is in a time warp (think New Kids on the Block on the radio). But it’s starting to catch up as people crave the income from mass tourism. I wanted to see it before the resorts take over – to get a feel for the real Cyprus.

Which is why I was staying in Büyükkonuk, the island’s first eco-village, at the base of the Karpaz Peninsula. Canadian-Cypriot couple Lois and Ismail run Delcraft, a lodge-cum-craft-workshop in Büyükkonuk promoting traditional North Cypriot ways of life, hoping to bring in money without sacrificing their land to the developers.

As I squeezed cheese in the family kitchen with Lois – we were making hellim from her goats’ milk – we talked about the future. Lois and Ismail teach skills such as bread, olive oil and cheese making to tourists, and they plan to build a village square where locals and visitors can gather. They want to offer an alternative to the big-scale development that is threatening to creep up to their as-yet unspoiled corner. My hellim-making improved substantially as we chatted, as did my understanding. The Karpaz, it seems, is trembling, on the brink of invasion or salvation.

With this in mind, I made forays from Büyükkonuk into the surrounding countryside to see what was so worth saving. I set off for a ruined church across the fields, through groves of olive trees, treading on pieces of old Roman road. My only companions were a flock of hairy goats and a horror-film-startle of pigeons that burst out of the empty stone nave as I was inspecting the scrub for snakes.

I drove up to nearby Kantara Castle, one of the three crusader castles guarding the Kyrenia Range from religious advances. Again, I was the only person there (to the point that there was no one to collect my entrance fee), but that may have been down to the conditions. Kantara boasts panoramic views across both the Med and the island’s interior – I could see neither through the dense mist that had encircled the abandoned turrets and passageways. A crow cawed and the air chilled; I’m not sure if it was atmospheric or just creepy.

Pastries and patriotism

I wandered around Büyükkonuk itself, past the old olive press and flower-fronted houses to the local café-cum-shop, where the grinning and (I’d swear) toupé-ed proprietor invited me to a dance. I also stumbled upon the village’s dual cemeteries: the Muslim one all polished and tended, the Orthodox Greek site locked and hidden from view, its headstones cracked and tilting, its graves pillaged.

It’s impossible to escape this side of Cyprus, and you wouldn’t want to – it’s one reason why this island is so unique. Every village on the Karpaz has its neat mosque and shiny bust of mainland hero Mustafa ‘Atatürk’ Kemal – plus a dilapidated church, left to rot after the Greek exodus of 1974.

Everyone talks politics: “Conversation here is 50% politics, 30% gossip and 20% food,” Karpaz hotelier Zekai Altan told me as I made dolma (stuffed vine leaves) in the kitchen of his 300-year-old farmhouse. I was expecting him to continue with a vitriolic attack on the Greeks but I was surprised to find a far more amenable attitude in the people I spoke to. “I am neither a Greek Cypriot or a Turkish Cypriot,” Zekai declared. “I am just Cypriot.”

Not everyone agrees. Lefkos (Nicosia if you’re Greek) is the planet’s only divided capital, where that ethnic division couldn’t be more literally stamped. I crossed the border to the Hellenic half, clearing immigration to walk through the no man’s land separating north from south. Barbed wire lay in unfriendly heaps and the Ledera Palace hotel, which sits squarely in this European DMZ, is scarred with bullet holes. It now houses UN peacekeeping troops rather than sun-seeking guests.

Peace amongst the politics

But I liked Turkish Lefkos. Its streets were appealingly shambolic – some of them just ended in ailing buildings, part dissected by the barrier wall. The houses had interesting facades, men played backgammon at pavement tables, and the market brimmed with boxes of many-flavoured lokum (Turkish delight).

At the old inn, Buyuk Han (now a calming craft centre), I met an Englishman who’d lived in the south. He was far more scathing of the Turks than I’d heard any Turk be about the Greeks – though I’m sure there are plenty in the north who would happily rage against their southern neighbours.

As I sat in a café, sipping homemade lemonade and ear-wigging on a conversation between the proprietor and punters about – you guessed it – local politics, I realised that I’d rather ‘got into’ North Cyprus. I much preferred my sun, sand and crumbly castles served with a generous helping of impassioned gossip. But maybe not the snakes.

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